MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) --
The Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps held its first Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit Dec. 17-18 at the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy here.
The purpose of the summit was to bring total force legal professionals together to improve the way they handle all aspects of sexual assault cases, most importantly supporting the victim of the crime.
"Part of the goal is certainly to improve our accountability processes," said Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force judge advocate general. "Those Airmen that come forward to disclose that they have been victimized need to feel that they've got trust and confidence in the processes that are available. By holding people appropriately accountable and supporting the victim, we can improve how the Air Force responds to these events, all to the good of America's Airmen."
Throughout the summit, the 230 professionals in attendance heard from psychologists, legal experts and mental health experts. They discussed topics detailing how to identify perpetrators and provide support to victims.
The topics ranged from military justice to "victimology" and the neurobiology of trauma.
"Hearing about the various aspects about these complicated cases from senior members of the JAG Corps is important for all of us in a senior leadership position," said Lt. Col. Kate Oler, a judge advocate attendee from Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. "(This way) we can gain a better understanding of the issues that surround the problem and come together as leaders to discuss the important topic."
Currently, the Air Force and its JAG Corps have numerous initiatives that support victims of sexual assault. This includes the special victims' counsel program, which provides the victim with an attorney whose sole role is to represent them in a confidential, attorney-client relationship throughout the investigation and prosecution process; and using events such as this SAPR summit to educate legal professionals on the spectrum of trauma victims endure, thereby making them better able to support and understand victims and prosecute the crime.
"The people that can fix this problem are in this room today -- make no mistake of it," Harding said. "I, like you, know that more can be done when it comes to this topic. What we're doing now is impactful, but we can do more. We can improve how the Air Force handles these cases, and that is really what this (summit) is all about."
Harding urged his team to take everything they heard at the summit into account and take what they learned back to their home station legal offices. This will not only help get ideas from others, but it will help more people better understand the issue, he said.
The director of the Headquarters Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward, gave an example of the hurdles the Air Force is going through with the sexual assault problem.
She presented a group with the following equation: 42+__+__+21+__+__-13+49 = Answer.
The hardest part of this issue is that, like this equation, there are so many unknowns, Woodward said.
"The problem is that people are filling in the blanks with their own personal biases," she said. "The more we can educate our Airmen, the more we can help them fill in the blanks with the correct variables."
Woodward shared with the group common biases that came up when she spoke to Airmen of various ranks during the focus groups her office conducted earlier in 2013.
"Some Airmen told us that they believed as many as 90 percent of sexual assault reports are false," she said. "The most validated studies we have put the false reporting rate for this crime between about 2 to 8 percent."
Another common misconception was that victims are to blame.
"There is not a victim out there who should be blamed for a crime that was perpetrated against them, no matter how much they put themselves at risk preceding the crime," Woodward said. "This is not about going out on a date and dressing too promiscuously. This is not about sex. This is about power and control, and until we understand that better, I think we risk filling in those equations with the wrong answers."
For both Woodward and Harding, what the issue comes down to is mutual dignity and respect for fellow Airmen.
"When you join the Air Force you join a family, and we are committed to that family," Harding said. "When a member of that family is in pain, you reach out and you help that Airman. So, this really is a family matter, and it needs to be treated as such."